Israel points the finger at Facebook over violence

Unable to maintain calm, Tel Aviv is shooting the messenger, writes Joseph Dana

Tel Aviv has criminalised legitimate criticism of its occupation and is now prepared to go after popular debate platforms. Yoav Lemmer / AFP
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Facebook is wildly popular in Palestine. There was a brief period during the 2011 Arab revolutions when Twitter challenged its popularity, but Facebook ultimately prevailed as the dominant Palestinian social media platform. As part of a basket of laws targeting dissent in Palestine and in Israel, the so-called “start-up nation” is forcefully going after Facebook.

Israeli lawmakers have renewed calls for special access to social media platforms such as Facebook to remove posts they believe incite violence. Failing to curb a recent wave of violence against Israeli citizens, public security minister Gilad Erdan intensified these calls.

Speaking on an Israeli news programme last week, Mr Erdan said: “Some of the victims’ blood is on Zuckerberg’s hands. Facebook has turned into a monster. The younger generation in the Palestinian Authority (PA) runs its entire discourse of incitement and lies and finally goes out to commit murderous acts on Facebook’s platform.”

These comments are part of an anti-democratic wave that has slowly engulfed domestic policies in recent years. Several draconian laws are expected to become law. Left-wing NGOs are being intensely scrutinised over their funding, and anti-occupation groups are on the verge of being criminalised. Ben Gurion University last week revoked an award for Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli combat soldiers who speak about the harsh reality of Israel’s occupation and the acts they committed during their military service in the West Bank and Gaza.

Can a country blame a social media platform for political violence emanating from a military occupation? The answer is a tricky one. But, above all, Mr Erdan’s comments reveal Israel’s failure to maintain calm and how that reality is pushing Israeli politicians to find new scapegoats.

Blaming Israeli leftists or PA president Mahmoud Abbas or Hamas in Gaza has failed to cover up the incredible security fractures that are evident in Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank.

In 2013, Israeli police arrested Razi Nabulsi, a Palestinian citizen of Israel from Haifa, for one week over status updates he posted to Twitter and Facebook. The police claim his status updates were incitement to violence. To add insult to injury, the police refused to reveal in court what Mr Nabulsi was accused of inciting, and said instead that his public social media updates constitute secret court evidence.

Facebook has actually refused hundreds of requests by Israeli authorities to hand over information on its users. According to Israeli media, Facebook has responded to 52 per cent of 1,000 requests submitted by Israel between 2013 and 2015.

The social media platform is also used by the PA to jail its own dissidents. According to Al Jazeera, almost 50 Palestinians have been detained since 2014 by the PA for comments posted on Facebook. In September 2014, a 23-year-old student from Ramallah was arrested for claiming that a senior PA politician ordered the torture of a Hamas captive. Many others have been arrested for posting comments critical of Mr Abbas’s leadership.

As such, the idea that the PA has some control over Facebook, as Mr Erdan suggested, fails to account for the company’s unwillingness to stop free speech crackdowns in the West Bank connected to its platform. Far from supporting the PA, Facebook has remained hands-off in Palestine.

There is another factor to take into account. While Palestinians tend to be technologically savvy, the fact also remains that they are subject to a military occupation that dominates their telecommunications sector. The West Bank only recently received its first 3G telecom frequency after Israeli authorities approved it. In short, the Palestinian internet goes through an Israeli filter and thus doesn’t have equal and open access to social media platforms. If Israel filters the Palestinian internet, why then does it need Facebook to interfere?

Mr Erdan’s comments much more accurately reflect how Israelis use Facebook and other social media platforms to incite violence against Palestinians. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Israelis who use Facebook to regularly incite violence. Should Palestinian leaders attack Facebook for failing to rein in Israeli incitement on the platform?

Underlying these attacks are the contradictions implicit in Israel’s self-branding as a bastion of technological innovation. The country has invested a great deal of time and money marketing itself as a start-up nation. Tel Aviv is a major tech incubator, and the country’s military technology has been translated into successful civilian tech projects and applications across the world.

But the incendiary comments from the public security minister demonstrate that the government’s priority is the maintenance of the occupation and control over Palestinians. This version of settler colonialism is at odds with the values of a free and open internet, and the ethos of social media. The limits of Israel’s branding and strategy as a start-up nation are profound.

Tel Aviv has criminalised legitimate criticism of its occupation and is now prepared to go after popular debate platforms. This is a slippery slope and one that ultimately shows that Israeli society is slowly breaking down under the weight of occupation.

On Twitter: @ibnezra